In February of this year, in the Regina v. Butler case, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that obscenity laws are a justifiable limit on constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech. The case involved a Winnipeg video store owner, Donald Butler.

Justifiable limits

On this basis, Judge Ian Donald of the B.C. Supreme Court decided late in June that the City of Vancouver was justified in restricting the operating hours of a pornographic movie house located near a school. The right to exhibit films, the judge said, had to be weighed in the balance against protecting children in the vicinity of their school. “It seems self-evident,” he declared, “that children should not be in contact with persons whose sole purpose in coming to the community is to gratify the need or desire for pornography.”

But the Butler case did not clarify all the issues related to pornography. In May, a Windsor, Ontario, judge dismissed obscenity charges against a man who published a drawing of Snoopy having sex with another cartoon character, and defense lawyer Daniel Brodsky stated, “This is absolutely a great victory for the freedom of expression.”

How far lawyers are willing to go in defending freedom of expression was shown in the case of Randy Jorgensen, found guilty – also in May – of distributing obscene materials through his Adult Only Video stores in Ontario. Crown Attorney Fred Campling, the Canadians for Decency summer newsletter reporter, pointed out that none of the seized videos contained fewer than 80% sexually explicit scenes.

The descriptions of some of them in the newsletter cannot be repeated here: almost the least offensive was a scene showing four women in dog collars and chains being led around by a man. Defending lawyer Alan Gold still protested, “They all have smiles on their faces. Calling this degrading or dehumanizing is a misuse of words.”

Judge Mitchell, however, did call all the videos obscene, dehumanizing, and degrading – going far beyond the community standard of tolerance.

Ontario Film Review Board

Yet the Ontario Film Review Board has approved all these videos. Its chairman, Robert Payne, has been fighting a running battle with the Ontario Provincial Police – and in fact with Marilyn Churley, Minister of Consumer and Commercial Relations. She wants the label “Violence against Women” to be used on sex videos. He says that would be sexist!

Payne’s term of office ended on September 10. In a lengthy article in the Toronto Star on August 31, Catherine Dunphy assessed his performance and the controversy surrounding him. Feminists, she pointed out, had started a campaign to have him replaced by a woman – someone sensitive to depictions of violence against members of her sex.

A Coalition Four Our Daughters’ Safety had come into existence, and one of its founding members, Valerie Smith, accused Payne of doing a great deal of harm: “He loosened the floodgates and we are now infested with hate-filled violent videos and movies.”

Among the videos for rent at her local store, she said, was Slumber Party Massacre 3, dealing with a killer who gores his female victims with a drill. Catherine Dunphy added supporting evidence of her own: the incessantly violent Terminator 2 was last year’s hit, and this year’s is Basic Instinct, in which a woman wielding an ice pick kills her lovers at the moment of climax.

Such examples give the lie to Payne’s announced policy. He claimed that the Ontario public did not want his board to act as a censor; it had decided, for the first time in history, to allow scenes of explicit sex between consenting adults. But it still forbade scenes of sexual violence and anything degrading to women, he maintained. Canadians for Decency and Valerie Smith’s Coalition obviously do not agree with him.

Permissiveness defended

Payne told Catherine Dunphy that the criticism directed at him arose from a general malaise in society: when people are worried about jobs and the economy, they tend to lash out at anything. He refused to see that there was good reason for them attacking his permissive policy. Over a one-year period ending in March, his board reviewed 3,478 films, giving them classifications running from Family (only 2 per cent) to Restricted to viewers 18 and over (66 per cent). Only one per cent of the films were not approved the first time around. The state of the economy was a weak excuse Payne used for not doing his job. Instead of censoring or banning films, he favors increased education about film classification to “alleviate the need to ban things.” But as long as movie makers depict men using chain saws and spear guns on women, the need for censorship exists.

The review board should not be scared by a word. Let us hope that with a new chairman a new and more sensible policy will be introduced – or, rather, that the policy of discrimination which existed when Mary Brown was chairman of the board will be brought back.

As Payne’s term ended, Marilyn Churley announced that a woman had in fact been chosen to succeed him – Dorothy Christina, an Indian from B.C., who has been on the Board for five years. Though she said that she was well aware of women’s concerns about violence, and that she sought balance and harmony, she still made it clear that she agreed with Payne’s views on censorship. In fact, she ridiculed the views of Mary Brown, under whose direction the Board actually did try to censor obscene film productions. Like Payne, she talked about the desirability of giving people educated choices. But putting a label on a film saying that it is violent and obscene is not going to end the violence and obscenity. Stronger measures are needed to control pornography, and the new head of the Film Review Board shows no sign of taking them.